It’s been a month since we launched investigatingtrump.com - dedicated to curating the best reporting on the impending presidency of Donald J. Trump. Given, his choices for Cabinet and White House staff, his refusal to divest his holdings and release his tax returns so that his many conflicts of interest can be assessed and his continuing stream of Tweets denigrating protesters, political rivals, the intelligence community and journalists, it’s clear that this platform has arrived none too soon.
This week at his first press conference in 168 days, when he falsely accused CNN of airing “fake news” in its coverage of the dossier of alleged Russian kompromat, Mr. Trump told reporters, “that’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do. I think it’s a disgrace that information that was false and fake and never happened, got released.”
One has to wonder whether the Third Reich reference, which began that day in one of his vitriolic early morning tweets, wasn’t just another “Trumpian slip,” given the number of allusions to der Fuher that crept into his candidacy.
By now it shouldn’t have been a surprise. After, all, Mr. Trump is of German heritage. His father Fred, whom he reveres, was arrested at a KKK rally in 1927 and ex-wife Ivana once revealed that her husband kept “My New Order,” a book of Adolph Hitler’s speeches in a cabinet by their bed.
Now, less than a week out from the inauguration, as we consider the path that led to Donald Trump’s ascension, it’s worth noting that the most effective tool in his political arsenal was first forged by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who perfected “the big lie” theory first enunciated in Vol. 1 Chapter 6 of Hitler’s frightening manifesto “Mein Kampf.”
Later, Goebbels later put it this way:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
So let’s look back on how the 45th President of the United States worked that strategy.
THE BIGGEST & MOST CONSISTENT LIE
Mr. Trump began his campaign with the bedrock lie of his candidacy: “We’re going to build a wall and Mexico’s going to pay for it.” He reiterated it again at Wednesday’s press conference. That same day Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto reiterated “Mexico will not pay for the wall.”
But again, like the Führer, stomping his jack boots at a Nurenberg rally while Leni Riefenstahl filmed, Donald Trump wanted us to believe that if he said it long enough and with his usual audacious confidence, it would become a truth.
There were some cheers in the room when he repeated the wall promise, but taking another page from Goebbels’ rally playbook, he’d already packed the press conference with a rooting section of “roughly 30 staff” members, denying entry to at least one legitimate reporter.
CHANNELLING GOEBBELS ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL
In 2015 after the first six months of his candidacy Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize Winning website, gave Mr. Trump their “Lie of the Year Award” and issued a scorecard rating his campaign statements. Four per cent were fact checked as “True,” thirty-three per cent were considered “False” and eighteen percent got the rating, “Pants on Fire.”
On November 5th 2016, three days before the election, The Toronto Sun’s DC Bureau chief Daniel Dale and global economics reporter Tanya Talaga, totaled up an astonishing 494 Trump falsehoods over a seven week period which they analyzed and sorted into 20 categories:
“Sure, all politicians lie.,” they wrote, “But Donald Trump is in a class by himself. He lies strategically. He lies pointlessly. He lies about important things and meaningless things. Above all, he lies frequently.
They duly noted that, “His rival, Hillary Clinton, has her own reputation for dishonesty…. But our scrutiny shows there is just no comparison in their level of accuracy on the campaign trail. At the three presidential debates, for example, we counted 104 false claims for Trump to 13 for Clinton.
What Dale and Talaga termed, “the extreme, unprecedented quantity of Trump falsehoods,” led to their fact checking every word out of his mouth from mid-September until November 5th. Their findings: “560 false claims, or a neat 20 per day.”
NOW IT’S STARTING TO WEAR THIN
Even from the man who created the “birther” movement and questioned the legitimacy of the Obama presidency for years before suddenly folding before the election as he courted the Black vote, Donald Trump’s flirtation with truth is starting to cost him, among some of his most ardent supporters,
Last week a Tea Party website threw down the bullshit flag when discussing his big “wall” lie. “This phrase was uttered probably north of 100 times by Trump during the campaign,” the site charged. “If he doesn’t deliver and American taxpayers are stuck with $10-$70 billion to build and yearly maintenance fees in the billions as well, the Democrats are going to paint Trump as either an idiot or a liar.”
Having taken The White House, with the GOP in control of Congress, he may not care. But whether he accepts the idiot/liar end game or not, the same forces that helped Donald Trump win The Oval Office, could cause him to lose it.
FROM RUSSIA WITH HATE
The January 6th report of the Intelligence Community on Russia’s interference in the election, repeatedly cited fraudulent news stories planted by the Kremlin via its Western media outlet Russia Today (RT). That’s was no surprise when you consider that the Russians invented “agitprop;” the old Cold War tradecraft term for creating disinformation. The practice dates back to the early days of post-Revolutionary Russia and was later honed to precision in the Department for Agitation and Propaganda.
Where was that? Where else? Back in the USSR.
Six weeks before the release of the IC’s report, The Washington Post published a piece on the work of four groups of researchers who’d examined Russia’s aggressive agitprop scheme in the 2016 campaign. Their conclusions dovetailed with what the professional spies found:
“The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.
“Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human ‘trolls,’ and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers.”
All that while Donald Trump steadfastly refused to release his tax returns. The NYT’s report that he might have dodged up to a billion in taxes and The Wash Post’s blistering probes into The Trump Foundation didn’t seem to matter to his largely white and blue collar base.
LIES DURING THE TRANSITION REACH EPIC NEW LEVELS
Since his election victory, despite a popular vote loss of nearly 2.9 million which he falsely blamed on “voter fraud,” Mr. Trump has taken truth distortion to extraordinary new levels. How? By repeatedly branding reporting in the media that he doesn’t like as “fake news.”
That shouldn’t be a surprise, since the principal internet platform for many of those bogus stories beyond RT was breitbart.com owned by Steve Bannon, who’ll soon be White House Senior Counsel, sharing equal power with Chief of Staff-designee Reince Priebus. And considering Mr. Trump’s use of “the big lie theory” throughout the campaign, it’s not too much of a stretch to view Mr. Bannon as his modern day Josef Goebbels.
Like no other contemporary media figure, Steve Bannon has perfected the dark art of “fake news” and he’s used it with reckless abandon both as a weapon and a shield.
When it comes to either fostering a fraudulent news story or hiding behind one, the ex-Goldman Sachs exec gives new meaning to Churchill’s description of Russia itself: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
PLATFORM FOR THE “ALTERNATIVE RIGHT”
In mid-August, MediaMatters ran a piece listing some of the more outrageous Brietbart headlines. Just a month earlier Mr. Bannon admitted that “We’re the platform for the alt-right,” a term embraced by White Nationalist Richard Spencer, who raised his arm in a new kind of Trumpian Sieg Heil and chanted, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory” at a post-election rally.
Still, on November 21st, folding the notion of “fake news” inside itself, Breitbart News ran a piece under the headline “More Fake News: New York Times Calls Bannon ‘White Nationalist.’”
The article by Joel B. Pollak insisted that, “The New York Times has run yet another fake news article — this time, an ‘explainer’ about ‘white nationalism’ that features a photograph of Breitbart News Executive Chairman Stephen K. Bannon under the headline ‘White Nationalism, Explained.’ Bannon is not a ‘white nationalist.’ In fact, he is not a racist at all, a fact attested to by everyone who has worked with him, including the diverse staff at Breitbart News.”
So there you have it: if Breitbart News insists that The Times got it wrong, they must be wrong. Right? Of course not. But since Bannon’s new boss seems to measure the “truth” based on the number of clicks a story gets, the endorsement of a half million followers seems to make it true.
WHY ALL OF THIS IS SO DANGEROUS
In recent days, beyond whatever lies he tells, the President-elect is now labeling any news coverage he’s not happy with as “fake.” Case in point: the controversy over the so-called “dossier,” assembled by former MI6 British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who, as the NYT reported, was first hired by a Republican to generate opposition research on Mr. Trump, then after his nomination the funding for the project was reportedly taken over by a Democrat.
On Tuesday night, on the eve of the news conference, CNN broke a story reporting that “Classified documents presented last week to President Obama and President-elect Trump included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump… The allegations were presented in a two-page synopsis that was appended to a report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.”
That was it. No discussion in the CNN piece on the details of the synopsis or the allegations. The full 35-page report by Steele, which contained sensational, but unsubstantiated allegations about Mr. Trump’s conduct during a Moscow visit believed to be in 2013, was then posted on BuzzFeed.com
ATTACKING A REPORTER WITH A “REAL NEWS” QUESTION:
The next day at the press conference, Sean Spicer, the newly minted White House Press Secretary, began by putting BuzzFeed and CNN’s vastly different coverage on the same level:
“The fact that BuzzFeed and CNN made the decision to run with this unsubstantiated claim is a sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks,” Spicer told the assembled reporters. “The report is not an intelligence report, plain and simple.”
Moments later the President-elect declared with bravado that, “CNN (was) going out of their way to build it up.”
At that point CNN’s correspondent Jim Acosta spoke up:
ACOSTA: Since you’re attacking us, can you give us a question? Mr. President-elect —
But Mr. Trump ignored him, pointing to another reporter and soliciting a question:
TRUMP: Go ahead.
ACOSTA: (continuing) Mr. President-elect, since you are attacking our news organization…
TRUMP: (pointing away from him) Not you.
ACOSTA: Can you give us a chance?
TRUMP: Your organization is terrible.
ACOSTA: You are attacking our news organization, can you give us a chance to ask a question, sir? Sir, can you…
TRUMP: Quiet. Quiet
ACOSTA: Mr. President-elect, can you say…
TRUMP: (pointing to another reporter) She’s asking a question, don’t be rude. Don’t be rude.
ACOSTA: Can you give us a question since you’re attacking us? Can you give us a question?
TRUMP: Don’t be rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question. I’m not going to give you a question.
ACOSTA: Can you state…
TRUMP: You are fake news. (to the other reporter) Go ahead.
ACOSTA: Sir, can you state categorically that nobody — No, Mr. President-elect, that’s not appropriate.
After that, Donald Trump moved on.
LABELING A FACTUAL CNN REPORT AS “FAKE NEWS”
Beyond, the “big lie” represented by the Spicer/Trump conflation of the CNN and BuzzFeed reports and the fact that what CNN had reported was true, the Trump propaganda machine went into overdrive.
That night on AC 360, KellyAnne Conway, Counselor to the President-elect, took the distortion of CNN’s coverage to new levels. She not only branded it as “fake news,” but she repeatedly and falsely charged that CNN’s report on the two-page briefing memo contained a link to BuzzFeed’s dump of the full report.
In fact, the BuzzFeed link in the CNN report online was to a CNNMoney story by CNN’s Dylan Byers who merely reported on the controversy surrounding the docs, without linking to BuzzFeed’s piece.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Donald Trump’s bullying tactics vs. the media have already begun to pay off for him. Last Sunday, January 8th, the President-Elect Tweeted an attack on Meet The Press, for airing just a minute of Chuck Todd’s 10-minute interview with Ms. Conway. In short order, NBC News capitulated and ran the entire Q&A online
When The President of the United States can interfere with a network’s editorial judgment; when he has no fear of dodging the truth; when he can characterize any coverage he doesn’t like as “fake news;” when he can craft his own definition of right and wrong without consequence, it only follows that in his mind he can obey the laws he likes and violate those that don’t fit his political and business agenda.
In fact he’s already said as much and he’s said it to The New York Times. In an interview with reporters and editors on November 22nd, discussing his epic business conflicts, Mr. Trump said, “The law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
So far on this website in the last month we’ve documented several dozen of those conflicts in 20+ investigative stories from the world’s top reporters.
But in early December we got a hint as to whether Donald Trump’s GOP colleagues will hold him to — among other laws – the Emoluments Clause in The U.S. Constitution, which prohibits Presidents from accepting gifts from foreign leaders or governments.
That’s when Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of The House Oversight Committee, told the HuffPost, “It’s sort of ridiculous to go after him when his financial disclosure is already online.”
In fact, Thursday night Mr. Chaffetz, who boasted before the election that he had “two years’ worth of material already lined up” to investigate Hillary Clinton if she’d won, sent a chilling letter to Walter M. Shaub Jr. head of the Office of Government Ethics. The letter contained a veiled threat that the nation’s top ethics monitor would himself be investigated for criticizing The President-Elect over his many conflicting business ties.
SOME FAINT HOPE OF OVERSIGHT IN THE DAYS AHEAD
Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, aghast over Mr. Trump’s praise of Vladimir Putin, whom John LeCarré would’ve called, “an ex-KGB hood,” have pledged to “hit back” hard on multiple fronts from sanctions to the defensive use of the military if the new administration of “45” gets too cozy with the man he calls “a great leader.”
On Thursday, the DOJ’s Inspector General announced a wide-ranging investigation into the conduct of FBI Director James Comey regarding his multiple public statements on the Hillary Clinton email probe during the campaign.
And late Friday GOP Sen. Richard Burr, joined with Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, the Ranking Member of The Intelligence Committee, to announce a bi-partisan investigation into Russia’s role in the election hack. One objective: to determine whether there was any communication between the Kremlin and the staffs of either candidate.
Since the IC Report underscores how Russia’s finger on the scale was weighted so heavily in Mr. Trump’s favor, the campaign most vulnerable is likely to be his.
But just hours before the joint announcement Sen. Burr went on record as insisting that the committee didn’t plan to investigate any possible contacts between Trump representatives and Moscow.
Then, apparently under mounting pressure, he relented and the probe will involve some of the allegations raised in ex-spy Christopher Steele’s “dossier.”
What caused his sudden turnaround? After all, in October Sen. Burr declared that “There’s not a separation between me and Donald Trump.” One factor might have been the embarrassing revelation broken by David Ignatius of the Wash Post on Thursday, that Mr. Trump’s pick for National Security Advisory, the mercurial Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, had “phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day that the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking.”
Along with Mr. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who enjoys a hyper-friendly relationship with the Russian President, Lt. Gen. Flynn appeared on RT, got a speaking fee from that Russian cable network and was photographed seated next to Mr. Putin at a black tie RT dinner.
REMEMBERING REAGAN’S WORDS
Now as the evidence of Mr. Trump’s close ties to the Russian oligarch/President begin to mount there will be pressure from GOP lawmakers who view Russia as the legacy superpower of what their hero Ronald Reagan once called an “Evil Empire.”
In another hopeful sign that reporters (even from opposing networks) won’t stand for the kind of abuse Mr. Trump inflicted on Jim Acosta, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, said, “CNN’s exclusive reporting on the Russian matter was separate and different from the document dump executed by an online news property… Though we at Fox News cannot confirm CNN’s report, it is our observation that its correspondents followed journalistic standards, and that neither they nor any other journalist should be subjected to belittling and delegitimizing by the president-elect of the United States.”
A FINAL NOTE OF CAUTION FOR NOW
Before First Amendment/transparency advocates think they might be taking some higher ground, it would be prudent to keep the cold, hard truth in mind:
Immense power is about to be conferred on Donald Trump.
As to Dept. of Justice Inspector General Horowitz and FBI Director Comey, he has the power to fire them both.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife Elaine Chao, is up to be Mr. Trump’s Secretary of Transportation and the Kentucky Republican has already rejected the kind of Special Select Committee that investigated the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals.
The law firm Mr. Trump has hired to insure that he avoids those pesky conflicts of interest, won an award in 2016 as “Russia Law Firm of The Year.”
So much for draining the swamp.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump continues his early morning Twitter tirades, going after every critic from Meryl Streep to civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, who had the temerity to question his legitimacy as President on the eve of the Martin Luther King weekend.
So if the GOP decides to narrow the scope of the Senate Intel probe or, more likely, The White House stonewalls, asserting claims of “executive privilege,” the pursuit of the single most important question since Nixon’s Plumbers Unit bugged the DNC, could devolve into just another one of Donald Trump’s “big lies.”
That question, if you haven’t gotten there by now, is whether Vladimir Putin pulled off a coup d’etat on America.